August 28, 2014

Labor Day's meaning: A shout out for workers

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications

jeff beallDriving through the mountains of West Virginia in a car full of fellow teenagers returning from an end-of-summer vacation, Jeff Beall (pictured at right) remembers being silenced by a powerful speech on the meaning of Labor Day being broadcast on the car radio.

Nearly four decades after hearing that speech, Beall, now a social studies teacher, can still remember the stillness in the car as he and his friends listened to discussion about workers "mobilizing together in unions to address the workplace abuses as American industry began to take off." He believes the speaker was George Meany.

"He was talking about coal miners. Workers faced very difficult conditions and the radio speech highlighted numerous events throughout American history where workers and their unions stood strong against unprecedented unfairness in the workplace," said Beall, a member of the Phelps Clifton Spring Faculty Association. "I think today, as difficult as our challenges are, we sometimes forget our own labor history and the debt we owe our brothers and sisters of the past. We should take a look … and, with renewed gratitude and appreciation, understand that very little gets done without every member pulling together. That is how it got done then, in much tougher times than these."

Beall marches in Rochester's Labor Day parade each year to show his support for the labor community in which he lives and works as a unionized teacher and activist. "I just like to be around labor people. They're the salt of earth. They're everyday."

This year, the Rochester parade is being hosted again by the Rochester Labor Council and the Genesee Valley Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. It will be held on Friday, beginning at 6:30 p.m., to kick off the Labor Day weekend, and is in conjunction with the Drum Corps Associates 50th anniversary. The theme of this year's parade is "Making Rochester Work."

Jim Bertolone, president of the Rochester Labor Council, said Labor Day is about remembering "all of America's working people that keep our nation running. As we celebrate America's workers, the challenges faced by working people are not being addressed. The labor movement built and maintained America's middle class. Unions, bloodied but still standing, have stood the test of time and assault of workers."

In New York City, the Labor Day parade will take place on Saturday, Sept. 6. United University Professions, the state's higher education labor union and a NYSUT affiliate, has put out a call for UUPers and their families and friends to march in the Manhattan parade. UUP will offer free bus rides to and from the parade, leaving from Albany, Long Island and Syracuse. The parade begins at 10 a.m. in the city at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. UUP is providing free t-shirts to participants.

To sign up, go to www.uupinfo.org, or directly to https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1Zehk67ifXuoQ13RSghZn6Bgoj2M4GGp9rvXuMSgDueA/viewform.

"Labor Day is a time to discuss workers rights, which are being stripped every day," said Paul Pecorale, the NYSUT vice president who oversees the union's social justice initiatives.

In the Albany area, the Capital District Area Labor Federation is hosting its annual Labor Day Picnic on Monday from noon to 5 p.m. in Cook Park, Colonie. Go to http://www.cdalf.org/ and click on labor events for more information. The annual Michael Burns Labor Day Parade will be held on Friday, Sept. 5, from 6 to 10 p.m. at the Corning Preserve in Albany, complete with fireworks.

According to the Library of Congress, the first Labor Day was held Sept. 5, 1882 in New York City, celebrated with a picnic, concert and speeches. Ten thousand workers marched from City Hall to Union Square. It was created as a way to celebrate workers and generate discussion and changes to working conditions. Peter McGuire, a carpenter and labor union leader, is credited for coming up with the concept of Labor Day.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said this year Labor Day is about remembering that "too many families are struggling and unable to get by."

"Some of the fastest job growth is occurring in such low-wage industries as fast food and retail, which is why more families feel like they are struggling to keep up with living costs. These same industries are least likely to pay a living wage or provide basic benefits like earned sick days and holidays."

For a history of the Labor Day holiday, read http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/blog/rachleff/reclaiming-labor-days-turbulent-origins.